Monday, March 26, 2007

Saving wretches like me

There was a time when I was pretty well up to speed with any big protest marches taking place in London but I have lost interest recently. After a while it is quite difficult to fight an apathetic sense of ‘If you’ve seen one demo you’ve seen them all’. The same protesters, the same banners, you even start recognising individual policemen.

I’m so out of touch now that I wouldn’t even know if a march or demonstration was due to pass by my flat.

Which is sort of what happened on Saturday.

Saturday started for me with the sound of Amazing Grace drifting into my bedroom.

I popped outside and discovered that Kennington Park was full of archbishops … chanting

Kennington Park - handy gathering spot for rampaging, vengeful mobs

For centuries people have gathered in Kennington Park before crossing the Thames to kick some Establishment bottom; most recently the poll tax riots back in 1990. Ah, those were the days. Marches and demonstrations were still scary and extremely photogenic back then. I suspect even policemen look wistfully back to the good old days when they actually saw some action rather than standing around in their hundreds, scratching their nuts for hours on end. Bored out of their skulls as yet another tedious procession of ring tone revolutionaries trundles by. Off to listen to Tony Benn in Trafalgar Square, spouting the same old crap he’s been spouting for decades. For fuck’s sake, what kind of Class War is that?

Sadly, Saturday’s gathering of the Bishops in Kennington Park was not the precursor to 250,000 clergymen massing together before storming across Westminster Bridge for a little bit of populist argy bargy.


They were commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery.

And by the time I strolled over to the park, admittedly a little late in the day, there weren’t that many people there. A few hundred maybe. The Archbishop to Prole ratio was on the high side.

Which, at first, surprised me.

Literally dozens of people listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury saying ' Sorry'

After a while, having listened to what a few of the speakers had to say, I was a lot less surprised by the low turnout and fucked off home myself.

A constant theme that all the speakers returned to was 'Our' shared guilt for the injustice of slavery - a guilt that has been passed on from one generation to the next. Consequently, we should all apologise for what was done two hundred and more years ago.


There are two groups of people in this world with a hard-on for this kind of race guilt – Christians and Lawyers.

Oh yes, and Mel Gibson

...but he's Christian

So that's still two groups.

Christians go for it because if you buy into that ‘Stain of Original Sin’ confidence trick you are effectively submitting to those who claim to be empowered by God to absolve that sin. Believing that we are born fallible is one thing. Assuming the guilt for the supposed sins of the first man and woman is an altogether different barrel of apples.

Lawyers also get moist thinking about historic race guilt because if some fucker is stupid enough to apologise even for something they had no control over, they are admitting liability and you can therefore sue their arse.

Definitely not the fault of anyone alive today

... nor is this

...nope, still not feeling responsible

The families of the people who made money out of slavery did a pretty good job of keeping hold of that money, then and now. And, for my sins, I worked in the sugar business for a few years and could easily provide a few names and addresses come the Revolution. However, the bulk of ordinary people in the UK in the late 1700s and 1800s lived hard, grim lives working in mills and factories. So why should any of their descendants apologise for, and presumably pay for, the sins of the same kind of people who fucked their own ancestors over as well as the slaves?

Aside for the thorny issue of apologising for something most us had no hand in, the abolition anniversary also throws up another tricky question

Whilst there's no doubt that many people opposed slavery because it was plain wrong, Abolition came about through the decisive influence of two groups of people with slightly more convoluted motivations – Evangelical Christians and Industrialists.

It’s no coincidence that Britain got round to ditching slavery round about the same time it was perfecting the steam engine and mass production. Ditto for the success of the abolition movement in the US forty years later - when the industrialised Northern States decided that the US did not need slaves any more.

After all, slaves represent a significant fixed cost. They have to be housed, clothed and fed by their employer. 'Free' factory workers don’t. And in an industrialised economy there are plenty of ways to effectively enslave people without being responsible for their welfare. Oh yes.

I have spent a lot of time travelling through the Southern States in the US and anyone who takes even a passing interest in their history has to ask themselves...

‘If the abolitionists and the Northerners really cared so much for the welfare of the slaves why did everyone sit back and allow those slaves and their descendants to be treated like shit for 100 years after abolition? What was going on between 1860 and 1960?'

The answer, I suspect, is that the actual welfare of the slaves was not top of many abolitionists' list of priorities once they had got what they wanted - a transfer of economic power from one group of bastards to another group of bastards for the industrialists and a ticket to Heaven for the Christians.

Which kind of takes the edge off celebrating the 200th anniversary of abolition if you happen to be a Secular Left Winger.

The moral of the tale being, I think, that sometimes good things happen for bad reasons and that judging the decency of a cause by the decency of the people who support it is not a particularly reliable test.



Oeffinger Freidenker said...

OK, not that it would help you that much: I blogged about your post in my own blog ( For your bad luck, it's German ;) I want to summarize it in a few sentences: we in Germany have our own historical debt - I'm referring to the Holocaust. There are voices don't accepting a common debt, saying that the younger generations are guilty in some way, too. The situation is only roughly comparable to yours, because your argumentation with the profit of few capitalists is absolutely right - but it was just an interesting excursion in the "mentality" of the British in case of historical debts.
By the way, I like your blog. I doesn't understand everything you write - especially the regional stuff -, but I like your style ;)

Apprentice said...

We all like his style. Bit brutalist, but canny all the samec.

Stef said...

@Oeffinger Freidenker

and, of course, because I was born in Britain I am personally responsible for the bombing of Dresden in 1945 and the Irish Potato Famine in 1845

Where does it all end?

And why is it not enough to say 'Yes these were terrible episodes in history and I will work to make sure that they are not repeated'?

I honestly think this is all about pressuring people into accepting liability for the sins of others, and then paying for them...

Wolfie said...

Personally I find this particular type of hypocrisy distasteful when these practices are still occurring today with little international effort of any merit to stamp it out.

It is estimated that there are more people living today in slavery or bonded servitude than have ever been before in the history of humanity.

Stef said...

No worries. Somebody will apologise for all that in another 200 years time